The Cost of a Year Around the World, Part 3: Country Comparison

Last time we covered how we spent the $25,286.50 per person for our travel around the world. In this post, I’ve put together a comparison by country of travel costs that is based on our spend in the country. Our weekly budget bought vastly different quality and quantity depending on which country we were in, so below I’ve assembled a map of the 28 countries we’ve visited by cost. Darker red = more expensive.

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A cost comparison of the countries we visited, where darker is more expensive. Gray means we didn’t visit that country. Attribution for original map vector in Wikimedia Commons: Lokal_Profil.

This cost map doesn’t track exactly with our expenses because there’s a second variable beyond dollars spent: what quality/quantity those dollars bought. For example, a $15 meal in Mexico was at a sit-down restaurant with tons of food, while a $15 meal in Austria was at the standing-only counter of a local fried-food shack and usually left us hungry. I dub this variable “quality of life” (QoL), with higher numbers meaning better QoL. I then adjusted our spend in each country by dividing the actual dollar spend by the QoL value.

So let’s dive into spend by continent and I’ll give you a tip for keeping costs down in each country.

The Americas

The general wisdom here is that the further south you go, the more expensive it gets. This applies to both Central and South America, with Mexico being pretty-darn-cheap (though Mexico is huge, and depends on where you are) down to Costa Rica and Panama, which are the most expensive of the Central American countries. In Colombia travel costs plummet again and slowly rise as you travel south to end up in Chile, where the cost of living easily rivals parts of the central U.S. A notable exception to this dynamic is the Galapagos, where costs skyrocket due to tourism; even with QoL adjustments (we splurged for an amazing cruise), the Galapagos remains the most expensive leg of our journey.

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Cost comparison of countries in Latin America. Attribution for original map vector in Wikimedia commons: Lokal_profil.

By country, here is the advice I can offer:

Mexico

If you want beaches, skip Cancun and instead camp at Tulum.

Costa Rica

The east side is way cheaper than the west side, where tourism has pushed prices up. We saved money on the west side by cooking our own meals, while on the east side we ate out at least once a day.

Panama

Food can be had for somewhat cheap, but we had trouble finding affordable accommodations online outside of Panama City, meaning you might have to do some searching when you arrive. If you want to watch the Panama Canal in action but the Miraflores Locks museum is closed or out of your price range, take the bus to the Pedro Miguel locks instead and watch the ships pass by for free, though behind a chain link fence.

Colombia

In Cartagena, stay just outside the walled city to get far better hotel rooms and food for less money. Head to Santa Marta or Medellin for a slightly less touristy experience, and in my opinion better food.

Ecuador

We found hotel rooms for less than $30 a night in Quito, though food was more expensive than Colombia. Pollo broaster was a staple, served with rice and heaps of beans.

Galapagos

If you want a cruise, you can get one for less than list price using the guide I wrote here. Be prepared for even the hostels to be expensive on the island, buy groceries from areas further from the city center, and double check prices before you buy — the price of staples can vary depending on the store (or perhaps whether the vendor thinks they can charge you a higher price than the locals).

Peru

Low season definitely cheaper in Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, but be prepared for people pushing hard to get money from you. Skip the $200 train to the ruin and instead hike the Salkantay or catch a bus to Hidroelectrica and hike from there.

Or if it’s food you’re after, head to Arequipa instead, where food and board will be more generous for the same price.

Chile

Hostels weren’t much of a thing in Arica, the city in Northern Chile we visited, so be prepared outside of Santiago to do some on-the-ground research for a cheap place to stay. While flights are the fastest way to travel the length of the country, buses are far cheaper and can be taken overnight.

Oceania, Asia, and Europe

These three are stuck together because I honestly couldn’t figure out how to split Russia in half using Inkscape, and the map looked idiotic with Russia just missing. Anyway, the breakdown of cost here is one most people already know: Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are expensive. Hong Kong, surprisingly, has a similar cost compared to Western Europe, while Southeast Asia is super cheap (excluding Singapore, which we didn’t visit). In Europe, things get cheaper as you go east through Central and East Europe; this trend continues through Russia as well.

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Oceasiaope? Cost comparison of this half of the world, with Africa TOTALLY grayed out because we didn’t get there (next time…). Attribution for the original map vector: Lokal_profil.

By country, here is the advice I can offer:

New Zealand

Hostels and motels are super expensive, so AirBnB it in Auckland, then rent a car and have travel double as your place to sleep. New Zealand has a strong camping culture, so 1) don’t trash it because you’ll ruin it for the rest of us and 2) they have tons of freely available campsites, bathrooms, and rest stops you can access. They’re handily plotted for you in the CamperMate app. While there are free campsites around the islands, many are also a hefty $10-20 a night, so be sure to either account for time to travel to a free campsite or money for that nearer one.

If a standard rental is too pricey, you could always also consider a relocation rental, where you pay a nominal fee (between $1 and $5, or nothing at all) to drive a rental car to where the company needs it – just be aware there’s usually a time limit for completing the trip.

Australia

Another expensive country, though the hostels are more affordable here than in New Zealand. If you’re going to be in the city for more than a week, consider renting a room or flat — Australian rents are often charged by the week instead of by the month, so you can find weekly rentals beyond Airbnb.

Indonesia

We visited the island of Java and found it to be one of the most affordable countries on our trip. Save money by choosing hostels in less affluent parts of town (like Glodok in Jakarta); you don’t have to worry too much about crime, save maybe petty theft.

Vietnam

Book onsite instead of beforehand online for tours, and check with others for the names and locations of tour and other services because in Vietnam you’ll get six places named the same thing, all of varying quality.

Hong Kong

If you’re looking for a cheap room in the city, chances are you’re staying in Chung King Mansion. There are dozens, if not a hundred hotels running out of that building, which at ~4,000 people is city unto itself. Be prepared for some closed-spaces jostling and vendor-shouting (“Want to buy a sim card, friend?”, “Copy watch for you? Maybe copy handbag?” – he means counterfeit), complete with weird smells and dirty dishes being carted in soapy buckets in the elevator (there are several illegally-run restaurants in rooms throughout the building). Take it all with a smile; despite the close quarters, violent altercations seem rare.

You could also get some of the cheapest food in Chung King, but with tons of amazing restaurants (and some of the most affordable Michelin-starred restaurants in the world), you might want to splurge on food here.

Taiwan

Hostels here were surprisingly expensive and poorly-built, but read reviews to find suitable locations and be prepared for a private room to literally be a mattress on the floor with a bare bulb as a lamp. Get cheap food at corner cafe-style, no frills restaurants during the day and in the nightly street markets at night. And yes, you can get cheap sushi here, but sometimes it will make you sick.

Oh, and want another way to save money? Don’t get bubble milk tea every day, but good luck with that.

Japan

You can find affordable hostels in large cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, but in smaller cities you’re better off going with business hotels, which offer discounts on the weekends (because businessmen have all gone home), or love hotels (which are exactly what you think they are). If you’re watchful, you might also be able to snag a weeknight deal at a ryokan, which will still be a pricey but worthwhile splurge.

Cheap food can also be hard to come by, but your best bet are the Gyu-don and Ten-don counter shops you’ll find scattered about the city, especially concentrated around major train and subway stations. If you can’t find one, though, you can always head to 7-11 or another convenience store, where the cheap food offered is freakishly good.

Russia

If you want to save money overall, skip Moscow and St. Petersburg and stay east of the Urals, where there is gorgeous hiking, cheap campsites, cheap hostels, and cheap food.

If you’re traveling short on money and a light sleeper (or the idea of plazkart terrifies you), go for kupe, where you’ll have other roommates who were also willing to pay more not to deal with plazkart.

Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, France, Geramny

I haven’t really got good advice for you here, now that we’re in Europe, because save for Bulgaria it felt like we were literally sprinting across the region. Our biggest tip is to find a place to stay with a kitchen (hostel or Airbnb) and make your own food, because even the cheap eats are pretty pricey (yeah, even that shawarma).

If you’re ever in a town without affordable accommodation and you’re desperate, you can always see if the local convent will take boarders for a nominal fee (that’s where we stayed in Sant Agata del Feltria), though in some places morning mass is requisite.

Arepas of Colombia

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Arepas in their natural habitat: on a griddle.

The arepa is a food both endemic and ubiquitous in Colombia, analogous to the biscuits we get with meals in the U.S. In its most basic form, it is a fried corn pancake that comes in two forms: white cornmeal, known as far as I know only as an arepa, and yellow cornmeal, which is often referred to as a Chocolo/Choclo arepa. These arepas are eaten as sides during meals, stuffed to make portable sandwiches, or used as a base for delicious food towers in meals and snacks. This is an encyclopedia of the arepas we encountered on our travels, where they are found in the wild, and how they taste.

The white corn arepas

This variety of arepa varies in size but has a wide range and is the predominant arepa you’ll find in Colombia. You’ll know them by their snow white color.

The side arepa: an arepa that is given as a side to common meals, including cazuelas (mixed bowls of food—think bibimbap), planchas (plates of meat, beans, fries), and soups. Outside of nearly every food-serving venue, you can buy them premade in markets. It is most often a sad, flavorless hockey puck because it’s made of only white corn flour and water. See anything missing? (Hint: it’s salt and fat. Ever made a biscuit without either of those?)

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The arepa is the round thing to the left. It’s fairly flavorless, and meant to offset the rich flavor of the main dish, here whole-roasted pig with some crackly skin.

The Don Jediondo side arepa: While it may seem that we have an unhealthy obsession with Don Jediondo around here, we promise you this isn’t biased. Unlike the standard side arepa, the Don Jediondo arepa is amazingly good even on its own! It’s served with their soup entrees or can be ordered separately, and tastes both salty and a bit sweet—delicious when dipped into the warm beef stew (Cuchuco) or the chicken soup. It’s also insanely dense, though, and two or three of these could make a meal.

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The arepa can be found in the upper right corner…with a bite out of it. It’s still photogenic, right?

The arepa sandwich: Found at street stalls, this flat arepa gets stuffed with meats and veggies to make a portable sandwich. During breakfast, you can find them deep-fried with an egg in the middle, while at lunch and dinner they’re pre-grilled and then stuffed. The arepa itself is still a bit tasteless, but is helped by the savory fillings.

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The remnants of a fried egg arepa. This one may actually be yellow corn, or the frying process may have changed the color. Either way, it falls into the less flavorful category of white arepas for us.

The cheesy arepa: This white corn arepa differs in that it’s packed with flavor because there are pieces of cheese mixed into the dough. These cheese bits melt into delicious stringy goo when the arepa is fried on a hot griddle, and the whole thing is then topped with savory or sweet sauces. A dessert favorite is this arepa topped with condensed milk.

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A dessert arepa at a fair. Note the margarine mashed into the hot center of the arepa and the swirl of condensed milk.

The yellow corn arepas (Chocolo/Choclo)

This arepa is on average larger (around 6 inches across) and often has pieces of corn kernels in it. It tends to be more flavorful overall, but rarer, with specific stalls specializing in this type. Look for “arepas de chocolo” written on the wall or in the stall’s name.

The open-faced sandwich: This arepa is frequently eaten for breakfast and as a snack and consists of a chocolo arepa topped with butter or margarine, a slice of deli meat, and a wedge of queso fresco. We found the quality of meat and cheese to be a bit bad in some places, so we often ordered just the arepa with butter, which got us some odd looks.

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Our first chocolo arepa, an open-faced breakfast sandwich made with spam and queso fresco. Breakfast of champions, this is.

The topped chocolo arepa: Studded with cheese and corn bits, this arepa acts as a delicious base for a tower of food. These beautiful dishes are most frequently found in nicer restaurants, and can be topped with vegetables, meat, and seafood and finished with a nice sauce. This was the first arepa I ever encountered thanks to Rubamba’s amazing arepas in New Haven, although we rarely encountered them in Colombia.

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An arepa tower, covered in roasted veggies. We only found these in pricier restaurants, so we encountered them rarely. This may actually be a white corn variant, but the others we encountered (including those at Rubamba in New Haven) were yellow corn.

The dessert/snack Chocolo arepa: This arepa is similar to its white-corn cousin, but instead of being filled with cheese, it’s fried on a griddle in butter and then topped with a wedge of queso fresco and condensed milk or honey. This was arguably our favorite arepa of the bunch.

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For a snack that’s both savory and sweet (and has some fiber from corn bits), look no further than this arepa.

Arepa distribution and DIY at home

Arepas drop off abruptly as you enter Ecuador to the south or Panama to the north, so get your arepa fix in Colombia (and Venezuela to the east). If there are any we missed (like the rare whole wheat arepa we encountered at Mercado Minorista—we didn’t get to try them), add them in the comments below.

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An arepa stall at Mercado Minorista, with a baffling array of arepa and arepa ingredients.

For those of you looking to make your own arepas, here’s some help:

Serious Eats arepa guide, where there’s a link to a recipe

Chocolo Arepas – This is the first recipe I’m trying when I get home

Old Reef Farm, or TRY ALL the tropical fruits!

A few kilometers from Cahuita is a farm where over a hundred different fruits grow, nurtured by the warmth of the tropical environment and the caring hands of the family that owns the land. Old Reef Farm has been around for a long time, but a few years ago Ramón came to the premises with the interest of collecting as many different fruits as possible. He now runs tours of the farm, where you can try fruits both familiar and foreign and pick as much as you can carry for 10,000 colones (~$18 USD). What you’ll find at the farm will vary by season, but here’s a sampling of what we had when we visited in November:

Achacha, yellow mangosteen – A tangy, golf-ball sized fruit common in South America that tastes like a cross between a tangerine and a pineapple. The rind itself is bitter, but when pulled off reveals a sweet white pulp that surrounds a large seed. Discarded rinds can be pureed with water and sugar to make a refreshing summer drink.

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The achacha fruit

Ackee – The national fruit of Jamaica and a mainstay in the Caribbean, Ackee is a relative of the lychee. The edible portion of the fruit is the cream-colored bit attached to the black seeds in the pods, which tastes somewhat like a walnut. The immature, closed fruit is highly toxic due to presence of hypoglycin, which is converted in the body to metabolites that inhibit amino acid biosynthesis; fruit must be left to ripen on the tree until it opens, when hypoglycin levels have dropped and it is safe to eat.

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Ripe and unripe ackee fruit on a tree. The shiny black things are the seeds in the open pods

Ylang-ylang – This is actually a flower and not a fruit, but it’s too cool to not mention. The ylang-ylang flower is the source of scent prized by many perfumers and is the floral scent of Chanel No. 5. The smell of the flower is intense, but the trees grow only in tropical climates so if you want your own plant get that greenhouse ready.

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The ylang-ylang flower

Biriba – A spiky green tropical fruit that in maturity is roughly the size of a grapefruit, it reportedly tastes like lemon merengue pie. This specimen was unripe so we were unable to verify this, so we’ll have to look elsewhere to find some. Because the flesh of the ripe fruit bruises and blackens easily and has a shelf life of only a week, this fruit is hard to get outside of the tropics.

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Unripe biriba fruit

Teak, Lipstick Tree – This is a tree more commonly prized for its high-quality wood, but Ramón showed us that the young leaves released a brilliant red dye when rubbed. This dye has long been used to make light red and brown dyes in cotton and as makeup, leading to its common name the “lipstick tree”.

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My hand stained with teak. It, uh, went away eventually.

Pitanga – This tropical fruit looks like a wrinkled cherry, and tastes pretty similar! This pair of fruits has a little friend (a salticid).

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Pitanga fruits with a tiny jumping spider

Canistel, eggfruit – This bizarre little fruit is both delicious and confusing. It tastes incredibly sweet, almost like the filling of an egg tart, with dry and crumbly texture of egg yolk (hence the name). Each fruit comes with tons of edible “pulp” around a single shiny brown seed. It decays quickly upon maturity, meaning it’s shelf life is short and it’s hard to get outside the tropics.

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The eggfruit has both the look and texture of eggfruit, and the taste of egg custard.

Cacao – The undisputed king of all tropical fruits that we tried, cacao is the source of the wonderful substance known as chocolate. The beans that come out of the pod taste NOTHING like chocolate, as cacao goes through a fermenting and roasting process similar to coffee (more on that in another post) to make it not taste awful and astringent.

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The cacao pod. This one is likely a forastero strain.

Housed inside this little pod is another treasure, though: the cacao fruit. It exists in a thin layer surrounding each cacao bean, and tastes like a cross between citrus, mango, and pineapple – the ultimate refreshment after a long hike in the tropics. Like an avocado, the cacao fruit discolors soon after the pod is opened, meaning that the fruit can’t travel far and is usually discarded. However, in some places farmers ferment a liquor out of cacao fruit called Solbeso, so if you want to try the flavor and can’t find cacao pods try looking for that.

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An opened cacao pod, exposing the beans surrounded by fruit.

That’s all for now! See you later.

– Natalie

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The aptly named green-and-black poison dart frog, Dendrobates auratus. Unlike the fruit, don’t put this one in your face.